JETHROE, SAM (20 January 1918-16 June 2001) was an outfielder with the Negro League CLEVELAND BUCKEYES and was considered a candidate to integrate Major League Baseball on several occasions. He integrated the Boston Braves in 1950 at age 32 and was the oldest player to win Rookie of the Year honors. Jethroe filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball and its Players Association in the 1990s over the fact that he and other Negro League players were denied a Major League pension on the basis that they did not play long enough to receive one. Jethroe argued that if Major League Baseball had not discriminated against African American players, they would have logged enough service time. Although he lost the lawsuit Major League owners chose to give pensions to former Negro League players, including Jethroe, in 1997.
Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, Jethroe played sandlot baseball as a youth and as young man he worked in an East St. Louis glass factory. He had a brief tryout with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1938, but eventually was discovered by Cleveland Buckeyes owner Ernest Wright Jr. while playing for the semipro East St. Louis Colts. Jethroe joined the Buckeyes during their inaugural 1942 season and was one of three players that the CLEVELAND CALL AND POST promoted for a Cleveland Buckeyes tryout along with Parnell Woods and Eugene Bremmer. Indians owner ALVA BRADLEY scouted the trio during the East-West All Star Game that year and declined to sign any of them, based off of their poor performance during the game.
In April of 1945, the Boston Red Sox invited Jethroe to a Major League tryout. The team invited Jethroe, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams to Fenway Park in what was later called a "political tryout" as much as a tryout based on baseball skills. There was a great deal of pressure on Major League teams to consider African American players, and many thought the 1945 tryout was meant to placate some of those complaints. The Red Sox did not sign any of the three players and it would be the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, in 1959.
During the 1948 season Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers offered Jethroe a Major League. He played for the team's minor league Montreal club for the rest of 1948 and 1949 before his contract was sold to the Boston Braves. During his Rookie of the Year season he led the Majors in steals with 35, and batted .273 with 18 home runs and 100 runs scored. Legendary Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe once said that Jethroe, nicknamed "The Jet," "was the fastest human being I¿ve ever seen," and a former Negro League player said Jethroe could "outrun the word of God." He was the starting centerfielder for three years in Boston before heading to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954. Branch Rickey sold his shares of the Dodgers organization in 1950 and by 1954 he was general manager of the Pirates. He facilitated the integration of the Pirates, with Jethroe and Curt Roberts. Jethroe also played for Toronto in the American Association before he retired in 1958 with a lifetime .261 average.
After his career ended, Jethroe settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he opened a bar and restaurant and played in the city's Glenwood League. In the 1990s his home burned, forcing him to sleep at his bar for a time. He received help from the Baseball Assistance Team, a group that provides aid to former players in need. It was a short time after this that Jethroe filed his lawsuit against Major League Baseball in regards to his pension. He told an Erie newspaper that it was a difficult decision for him and that "I would never do anything to harm the game I love." Since there were millions of dollars in Major League Baseball at the time, Jethroe believed that some of it could be shared with players like him.
Major League Baseball first instituted the pension plan in 1947, and required that players have four years of service time in the Majors to qualify. Jethroe spent a total of three years and seventeen days between the Braves and the Pirates, meaning that he fell just short of the requirement. Once owners decided to provide former Negro League players with pensions, players with at least four years of combined service between the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues would receive about $10,000 per year. Modern pension requirements dictate that a player must play one day in the majors in order to qualify. Under the revised 1997 parameters Jethroe qualified for, and received, a pension.Jethroe died of a heart attack at an Erie hospital in 2001 and was buried in Erie Cemetery. Jethroe had four daughters, Kim, Gloria, Sheila, and Jennifer with his wife of 58 years, Elsie.